The Rarity & Delight of a Film Like Carol

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I wish Carol had existed when I was a teenager. I almost have trouble believing, now that I’ve seen this deceptively simple romantic thriller, that this film didn’t exist long before 2015–although, of course, when its source material was first published, Hollywood still operated under the Hays Code, so how could it?

Still, when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) at last consummate a relationship delicately built around Carol’s ongoing divorce and custody battle, I found myself cycling through two personal filmic histories–of female sexuality, and of queer experience. In particular, I recalled the trashy CityTV views of my youth, like Porky’s (1981), Basic Instinct (1992), and Wild Things (1998): films all catering to a male view of female sexuality, which just happened to carry me along for the ride. And I remembered, too, the major female-queer films of my adolescence and early twenties: mostly shoddy, over-the-top coming-out stories and larger-than-life sex-capades, with the occasional art-house piece, like Je tu il elle (1975), which offered my first glimpse of female sexuality for female audiences.

And… I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried at a sex scene in a film, but the one in Carol is not transgressive, not sensational, not really about the audience at all. When Carol views Therese in full for the first time, we don’t share Carol’s exact vantage point–nor should we. Instead, the impression director Todd Haynes achieves is that these two lovers are positioning themselves primarily for each other, not the camera. Their sex is not centrally about our titillation, which made me feel acutely the loss of similar representations from what constituted female sexuality in so many films in my youth.

Absent in Carol, too, are any coming-out scenes. Even though we’re dealing with Therese’s first same-sex relationship, ideas about being in love with certain people over other people are far more central to the conversations Therese has with two other men. (Also important here is that neither of these men is oblivious; Therese’s boyfriend accuses her of having a crush on Carol, and her professional mentor, Phil [Nik Pajic], recognizes that a significant connection exists between these two women.)

Indeed, absent in Carol is any push whatsoever for the main characters to adopt labels, because labels don’t matter as much as the question of who loves whom. To this end, Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), knows his wife’s affinities–possibly even knew them when they married–but the jealousy he feels, and the power-plays he enacts, would have existed no matter the sex of the persons Carol chooses over him. Similarly, Carol is permitted to be a complete human being, complex enough that, even though she plays a damned fine older flirt, this performance is routinely disrupted by her other roles–as mother, as friend, as woman in the middle of a divorce. The result is a film that normalizes the end of one relationship and the start of another within a broader web of human experience, even as Carol also plainly highlights the ways in which non-heterosexuality could be punished and pathologized in the 1950s.

This film also deftly illustrates how often female interiority is misunderstood, in movies as in life. For instance, Carol‘s opening scene involves a young man stopping by a club for drinks and recognizing a woman in conversation with another woman across the way. The staging of this scene strongly suggests that two women dining together invites disruption in a way that a man and a woman dining together might not. (A later scene similarly involves a man presuming that a woman dining alone or with another female person must be in want of company, but this second interruption is complicated by a subsequent plot twist.) In private, too, Carol’s flirtations with Therese draw from a spectrum of touch already shared by many female friends–testing perfumes, for instance–but there is nothing predatory about this older/younger, experienced/inexperienced lovers’ dynamic. Indeed, Therese (the younger) has so much agency that she even needs to be dissuaded from feeling responsible for Carol’s more difficult life circumstances.

On a purely aesthetic level, too, Carol is a polished work, with water-stained windows and walls lending a symbolic haze to the otherwise simple elegance and natural grit of life in 1950s America. The slow-building tension, achieved in no small part by an understated soundtrack, similarly invokes the best of Patricia Highsmith’s novels–which makes sense, since the film’s source text, The Price of Salt (1952), is in many ways as much about criminality as her other psychological thrillers. Nevertheless, the major difference between Haynes’ film and Highsmith’s novel seems to lie with how effortlessly he normalizes queer experience. After seeing each character in this film treated as a three-dimensional entity, I find it difficult to grasp why the feat remains so hard for so many in Hollywood.

Indeed, in closing I should add that much of Carol takes place over the Christmas season, which only makes sense, considering all that this holiday has to say about the importance of community to our sense of self, and the perceived universality of seeking out intimate connections with our fellow human beings. To this end, Carol herself, sophisticated in both beauty and estrangement, is every bit the sort of song her name invokes: familiar, vaguely timeless, and bearing the promise of a love that need not ever be fully explained, so long as it flourishes at all.

How easy the feat seems, through such a generous lens.

Storytelling, Two Ways: Star Wars & The Hateful Eight

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A writer owes it to herself to watch Quentin Tarantino films. Although the level of violence might prove unpalatable for some, his stories are always meditations–playful, sly, ambivalent, frustrating–on the nature of stories themselves. Is life coherent? Do the stories we tell ourselves matter? Can they survive collision with other people’s tales, or with broader cultural narratives? Is narrative itself a serious business, always to be presented from a distance that implies authorial objectivity? Or is the author always a deceiver, a trickster god? And if the latter, does honesty about authorial deceit heighten or diminish the tale at hand?

Watching The Hateful Eight the day after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was especially reminded of the mainstream narrative devices that Tarantino’s films upset. Absent in most of his work is the reassuring linearity of cause and effect, or any reason to believe that having grand hopes and dreams will guarantee at least an opportunity for their fruition. Gone, too, is the treatment of death as simple background noise (e.g. in a mass of unnamed characters murdered at a distance) or inherent tragedy (e.g. when the dying person matters to someone else in the film or the audience). But more than anything, gone is a form of visual storytelling that relies on perfect audience trust in the film’s narrator–and in its place arises a form of visual storytelling that trusts its audience almost too much instead.

Granted, the slyness of Tarantino’s visual storytelling is easily overlooked, because his scripts are joys unto themselves, famous for vivid speeches and conversations and the slow-building, nail-biting tensions they both support. Similarly, his violence is explicit and excessive in both image and dialogue, so it’s quite natural that the extremes of his cinematography and language would come first to mind when thinking about his style. Yes, a seasoned Tarantino fan knows to expect someone, at some point, to be hidden off-screen in one of his films, but other gestures are trickier to catch, and yet wiser (if caught) in what they say about Tarantino’s sense of play. 

The Hateful Eight, for instance, opens with a slow pan out from a snow-capped Christ-on-a-cross, while credits roll and the first of the inestimable Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack establishes a grim, foreboding mood for this film about post-Civil War travellers–bounty hunters, murderers, representatives of the law, old soldiers, and enigmas–gathered in an isolated pit-stop to wait out a blizzard. Initially, I suspected there was a thematic meaning for this image, a question dangling over the film as a whole: Is this a story about suffering or redemption? Maybe both?

But at a critical chapter in the story–and I mean, literally, “chapter”, because the film is broken into six explicitly named components, with an off-screen narrator recapping the story after the intermission following Chapter Three–I realized that the cross serves just as much as a visual pun. When it reappears in Chapter Five, it is at the “crux” of the film, a crossroads between two different story-lines, the latter of which Tarantino has us backtrack through time to experience firsthand. This maneuver is delicate, and almost always backfires when used as a “gotcha” moment for the audience, who didn’t have any choice but to go along with the narrator’s established world in the first place. Here, though, our amicable voice-over at the start of Chapter Four has already established that things aren’t exactly as they appear, and that our storyteller cannot be completely trusted. Consequently, viewers are firmly “in” on these narrative disruptions by the time a major one appears.

In similar fashion, the distinctness of Tarantino’s disruptions also comes from how much he still loves the storytelling conventions his writing upsets, and how much he recognizes that his audience loves them, too. Inglourious Basterds (2009), for instance, is wholeheartedly aware of Hollywood’s fetishization of WWII and the Holocaust, as well as filmic histories of national propaganda, but Tarantino does not try to shame his viewers for being party to both. Rather, he puts the two histories in conversation and beckons us to peer through the keyhole, to see what can be made of them now. Later, he even encourages us to take a sick kind of pleasure from extreme-to-the-point-of-absurdity plot devices directly inspired by the propaganda films we’re simultaneously encouraged to despise. This pointed ambivalence means that even when we have a clear “bad guy” on screen, the story holds out for greater complexity.

Django Unchained (2012) is likewise clear about its context and source material, and just as nuanced in its use of both. Arising at a time when Hollywood slave narratives often allowed viewers to observe some of the horror of slavery as entertainment–discomfited in the moment, maybe, but ultimately reassured by “how far we’ve come”, Django instead draws in equal parts from blaxploitation cinema and the spaghetti western to create a tale that upsets and romanticizes this history in very different, more complicated and subversive ways. For all that some critics have claimed that Django’s ultimate ride into the sunset is just another comforting fantasy for white viewers, something that somehow makes all preceding depravity “okay”, I think such a reading is hogwash: White slavers and saviours alike die brutally in this film, and this is the only way in which that fantasy of perfect, romantic triumph over the monstrosity of slavery becomes attainable. Not exactly reassuring fare.

So why does this level of pointed moral ambivalence sit so well with me, as both viewer and writer? Precisely because–for Tarantino–it seems to arise from a place of genuine compassion for the complexity of human experience and individual narratives. In this, The Force Awakens also comes close to breaking from the all-too-reassuring good-guy/bad-guy division: defecting storm troopers, women in the ranks of the First Order (the Empire’s replacement), an antagonist driven more by teen angst than genuine evil. But there’s a limit to how much a feel-good, merchandise-driven filmic enterprise can keel towards uncertainty in character portrayals, so Abrams also throws in clear Nazi allusions for good measure, and establishes so disparate a range of possible actions between the Rebellion and First Order as to make any individual character’s moral “grey area” only tolerable as a precursor to (inevitable) redemption.

Meanwhile, Tarantino’s nasty, isolated 19th-century America is nothing if not steeped in moral complications, which bleed into the very narrative forms and filmic histories at play–and yet, there is still so much to enjoy about the telling. This, I suspect, is because Tarantino recognizes that many of his viewers truly love the problematic Westerns and Civil War histories that inspire this tale. Thus, even when The Hateful Eight challenges audiences to think critically about how these cultural narratives work together, Tarantino still invites us to enjoy them for what they might have meant to us at different stages in our lives. Amid a social discourse that often appeals to strict binaries–that wants us to cut all ties, past and present alike, with any media the moment it becomes tethered to a problematic narrative–it is possible, Tarantino argues, to both bear the social burden of a given story’s awful history and still acknowledge how that same history has played less awful roles in our individual lives.

The Hateful Eight is thus little different from its predecessors in its use of history, except that its filmic nods also include our love of celebrity culture, which Tarantino toys with by foregrounding his star-studded cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, whose face opens the main body of the film in a way clearly intended to establish that we’re back on Tarantino’s seasoned turf. However, unlike J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which uses an extreme level of plot and setting familiarity either as a “palate cleanser” or because nostalgia was the safe, mass-market bet, familiarity is by no means to be confused with likability in a Tarantino film. Indeed, Tarantino often flips the script for past actors in his films, shifting their roles from “bad guys” in one film to “heroes” in the next. Thus, as the characters in The Hateful Eight pile up, the initial stories they’ve told each other also increase in moral ambiguity. Are any of our main characters “good guys”? Or is Tarantino nudging us to consider other reasons for why we ally ourselves with different people in different moments? Do we as viewers simply want–even need–someone, anyone to survive, even if all options truly are the most hateful human beings?

Another commonality in Tarantino’s scripts is claustrophobia: close-quarter confrontations that can switch in a pinch from idle to life-or-death negotiation; heartfelt life stories that mean nothing to the person with the gun who enters right after their telling; a search for moral high ground that leaves every participant rooting about in the muck. But The Hateful Eight is also filled with arresting visual reprieves–horses straining through the snow in slow-motion; Jackson speaking in slow-motion while another character, played by Walton Goggins (happily in a more prominent role!), replies at normal speed. These storytelling moments highlight the struggle experienced by every beast in this film: the desire to persevere, and if possible, to find some sense of meaning in the effort, even when the content of each persevering life seems more putrid than the last.

Unsurprisingly, then, if there is any thematic clarity to be found in the pursuits of all these wretched, angry, violent, tribalist people, it lies with one recurring image in the film: the “Lincoln letter” that Jackson’s character carries; a letter that brings delight to one character, elicits spite from another, serves to protect another, and meets with incredulity and mockery from others still. This letter arises near the opening of the film, is mentioned again near the middle, and reappears at the very end–a clear and pressing motif. I cannot discuss its importance without spoiling a valuable twist, but its existence–an explicit written narrative within a larger narrative–and its varied uses affirm for me the importance of watching Tarantino as a writer.

Certainly, all will be struck by different aspects of this film, but as I reflect on the profound differences between the storytelling choices in Star Wars and The Hateful Eight, I cannot rightly imagine the writer who could watch the latter and not emerge with similar questions about what a “real” story looks like, what an “honest” narrator looks like, and whether or not she, too, can confront the spectre of human erraticism with even 1/10th Tarantino willingness to play–joyously, lovingly, teasingly–with some of our culture’s most sacred cows. For Abrams’ The Force Awakens, a belief in internal consistency and an expectation of external destiny drives an immense amount of audience comfort and pleasure from the return to one well-travelled form. But for me, the real “palate cleanser” came from next viewing a Tarantino film, and being reminded that it is indeed possible to celebrate mainstream culture’s greatest hits while also holding those same narratives to account for what they say–and don’t say–about the intricacies of human life.

The Conundrum of the Nasty Protagonist

I recently submitted a story with a nasty protagonist: a character who starts out as the focus of reader sympathy, but who goes on to do terrible things that affirm something unconscionably ugly about him. A few days later, I found myself writing another nasty protagonist, although this one’s ugliness appears nearer the beginning, and in consequence, I’m struggling with where to take the story next. Amid this struggle, I’ve come to realize how tricky, in general, is the case of the nasty protagonist.

Neither piece, I should add, started with a nasty protagonist in mind. The first story began with two what-ifs: What if a child grew up thinking his best friend had a miraculous and secret gift? And what if the child’s fixation over his friend’s gift masked (even to himself) the existence of his own? The second arose from idle curiosity about how to wring something new and exciting from that old fantasy trope, the spiritual medium.

In the first story, the character arc relies on an early expectation of reader sympathy, and offers a level of horror after the reader realizes where their sympathy has brought them: to recognition of the ongoing humanity even of someone who has done a truly terrible thing. This school of nastiness encompasses a wide range of mainstream media figures: Aileen Wuornos as depicted in Monster (2003); one or two characters (depending on your interpretation) in We Need To Talk About Kevin (book 2003, movie 2011); Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), Walter White from Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

The fact that the character in my story does something truly awful, something that makes liberal thinkers agonize between a desire for restorative justice and a desire to see certain crimes met with a stronger criminal court response, is definitely going to make the story a hard sell. However, I finished it even after the appearance of a nasty protagonist precisely because this tension made me uncomfortable; because I wanted to see if reconciliation between those competing social drives was possible, even just in the abstract realm of fiction.

In the second case, I’m trying to figure out where to go with a character who starts out quite nasty. To turn him “good” somehow feels a cheat, because 1) he is well past redemption in one very important way, 2) I don’t want any moments of “goodness” to be read as an excuse for his heinous acts, and 3) I suspect the first story takes the more useful approach for that kind of message: starting with someone’s basic humanity and gradually introducing their fall in the “there but for the grace of [X] go I” category. Alternatives to this character arc, however, are few–and it occurs to me, too, that the most common arc for these characters is an over-the-top exaltation of awfulness. Think Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (book 1991; movie 2000), Jordan Belfort as depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (1999-2007), Francis Underwood in House of Cards (2013-). Sure, these protagonists have complex characters, but their nastiness remains front-and-centre.

There are, of course, exceptions, and these exceptions promote a different sort of social discourse. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1866) begins with a twisted desire to prove he has the sort of ruthlessness needed to become a great leader, but after he murders an older woman just to see if he can, his conscience gradually eats him up inside, and in a Siberian penal colony at the end, he is formed by the love of a woman and the grace of his faith into a figure worthy of redemption. Conversely, Alex in Clockwork Orange (book 1962; movie 1971) begins as a character who delights in nights committing “ultraviolence”, who rapes and beats and murders, but it is the state’s ultimate recourse–to wholly destroy Alex’s ability to tolerate any violence whatsoever–that readers and viewers are challenged to see as a violent act in its own right.

Now, I have no interest in glorifying the terrible things done by the protagonist in the second story; they are necessary components of his backstory, which forms the crux of the narrative’s present action, but they are also acts of violence that, unlike the violence committed by all the aforementioned persons, go beyond the pale of societal toleration. There’s a part of us–the part that grows frustrated with the sluggish pace and petty concerns of the world–that gladly welcomes the existence of the Judge Holdens and the Dexters and the Hannibals in our media: highly intelligent people who have established their own codes of conduct to rise above the tedium of human life. We are drawn to these characters, protagonists or otherwise, because they offer a kind of freedom from societal norms–however twisted, however wrong, however unattainable (we also hope) because of the viewer’s conscience. But even these escapist fantasies have their limits, and my nasty protagonist has passed a particularly crucial one.

Nonetheless, a protagonist cannot be static; the reader needs to invest in the protagonist’s perspective and achieve some measure of improved knowledge about them over the course of the story. The fact that my nasty protagonist is dead rather limits these options: the redemption narrative will always feel unearned in a modern context, and there is no motivation for transformation that would feel like anything but a cop-out if achieved.

What perhaps remains is a trickier narrative maneuver: using the protagonist not to further his own growth, but the growth of a secondary character–the spiritual medium who meets him on his afterlife turf. This is a tough gambit, though, because then I have to justify not telling the story from the spiritual medium’s perspective from the outset. What value might possibly be added for the reader by perceiving another character’s growth through the eyes of a particularly nasty spirit?

The answer to this, I suspect, will come from better understanding why I’ve been drawn to stories with nasty protagonists in the first place. I know that, in some way, my choice of protagonist is a reflection of core anxieties about myself, the author–the same way that the passivity and cowardice of other protagonists this year also reflected fears and angers held towards myself, and pursuant to my conduct in the world. These reflections aren’t 1:1, of course; I pride myself on starting stories with specific sentiments of great urgency to me, then finding wholly different forms in which to more safely explore them. The last story, for instance, was clearly driven in part by the difficulty of hanging two major social convictions against one another: the struggle, on my part, to establish a more coherent approach to social justice.

But the current story? This one hasn’t quite found its motivation yet. I have a nasty protagonist–who is not to be exalted, not to be redeemed, but still requires momentum–and an overdone fantasy trope I wish to make new. And now I also have a whole other archetype–the monstrous protagonist–to subvert as well. I don’t know how I will yet–I don’t know what I’m trying to negotiate in myself, as in this story–but damned if that sense of mystery isn’t the fun of being a writer at all.

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Last night something spooked the little animal by my side. When it happened, I felt her claws tense over the blanket; saw the prick of her ears against the apartment’s softer shadows; knew the sudden silence where her rumbling purr had been. I, too, had heard the unusual sound–some hard thump in a nearby apartment, or maybe in the walls: Nothing, for me, with which to greatly concern myself.

But when the little animal turned the yellows of her eyes in the direction of that sound–searching, waiting, listening for more–all I could do was offer up her name and a reassuring scratch, and wonder, when neither eased the tension beneath her fur, what sense her little mind was making of this thing that had frightened her. In general, what little-animal stories did she have at her disposal to grasp the many uncertainties in her life: the predator-roar of thunder and the vacuum cleaner; the hiss of rain-water under car tires on the streets below; the bark of teenagers waging turf wars outside the shelter across the way?

Leaving Plato’s cave is unlikely for little animals, but an ability to escape that cave comes with its own limitations, which form the lesser-known second half of this allegory in the Republic, before Socrates suggests the steps required to turn a curious mind at twenty into a dialectic mind at thirty, and a leader’s mind at fifty. I’ll never know for certain what made the sound that spooked the little animal, but my guesses in that moment were informed by knowledge not at her disposal–knowledge that made it easy for me to dismiss as harmless what continued to unsettle her. All I could do for her was to convey a sense of calm, and hope it would be enough. For all my ability to reason, I’ll never know what this little animal makes of the strangeness in her world, and accepting this fact means accepting a chasm in close proximity: a chasm that likes to curl up, purring, by my side.

With fellow human beings, the shape of this chasm differs, and perhaps runs deeper: There are so many stories we tell ourselves to explain the unknown, it’s easy to feel bereft of a truly common tongue. Earlier this week, for instance, I discovered that an acquaintance was reading one of her faith’s core texts for the first time, and I have to admit: I was genuinely surprised to discover that she was taking many of its assertions at face value. “So that’s why men have dominion over women–because of a piece of fruit.” “So that’s why this guy has different views on Israeli foreign policy–he’s uncircumcised, and it says right here that the uncircumcised aren’t my people.” Her comments required an adjustment in my understanding of how she engaged with text–and with this adjustment, a reminder that there are many dissenting ways to perceive and interact with the world.

This acquaintance had been struck, too, by so much affirmation that hers is indeed an angry god, and she asked me if this was the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, when “Christ sort of smoothed things over.” Her question gave me pause. Before realizing how seriously she was taking her reading of this text, I’d mentioned how conveniently Deuteronomy was found by the High Priest Hilkiah to justify the horrific purging of pagans under King Josiah–but when this observation was greeted as yet another impressive aspect of the grand “just-so” story of the Tanach, I realized that more care was necessary in what I chose to say about this exploration of her culture.

Consequently, I responded to her question by pointing out that Christ is given (by the anonymous authors of the gospels) to say many strident and violent things in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 10:34), such that interpretation plays a huge role in both texts, and a reader of faith tends to get out of these texts an amplification of whatever ideology they put in: violence finding violence, peace finding peace. When this approach to interpretation seemed to perplex her, I had to remind myself that I spend my days swimming in critical discourse, so it’s easy to forget that scepticism requires practice. My acquaintance is, after all, by no means unintelligent, but because she is also deeply community-oriented, with little experience in textual analysis, I understand why she might take a text labeled “sacred” by her family and culture at face value, even though to me its mystical histories seem self-evidently inaccurate. I read this text with only a scholar’s interest. She reads in search of a story to explain her world–to explain the strength and the vehemence and the nationalism of her culture–and, for now, at least, she’s found one.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also conversed this week with a fellow nearing the end of a life’s journey dedicated views that differ wildly from mine: a man deeply fascinated by a range of topics that indicate dissenting beliefs on evolution, religion, and the participation of alien races in the formation of human civilizations. He is a person I take great care (for professional reasons) not to engage over his conviction that “evolutionism” is a fraud. Nevertheless, in the course of our most recent interaction, he shared with me two events that changed his life in this regard. As is often the case, they were mundane affairs: first, a high-school acquaintance gave him a book that sparked a train of religious thought with a conspiracist bent; and second, forty years ago he listened to a radio programme that convinced him the woodpecker was proof against evolution. (It’s not.)

Just beneath that surface, though, lay something far more interesting for me. As he spoke, I imagined this fellow as a young man of considerable skill in his chosen profession, with a deep, abiding curiosity about the universe at large, and an unnamed dissatisfaction with what the usual progression of life had on offer. I imagined him giving his high-school friend the benefit of the doubt, and lifting his head from the book with a fresh appreciation for the world around him. I imagined him sitting in his car, listening to that soothing radio programme in the 1970s, with so much subversiveness on such pleasant and attainable offer. How could the grand narratives espoused by an alternative approach to spirituality, and an alternative to mainstream science that flattered his understanding of some elements therein, fail to stir in him a sense of deeper purpose: a quest to carry him through the long, remaining years of mundane life?

Persons with more liberal views are just as susceptible to such appeals to the desire to be part of something greater, which is why the moderately- to well-educated are sometimes the worst offenders for disseminating destructive ideas. Vaccination non-compliance, for instance, is highest among well-educated and affluent persons: in other words, persons who have a significantly stronger safety net to accommodate for the failure of their views about disease, as it plays out in the health outcomes of their families, and who have perhaps become overconfident in their ability to sift through the surfeit of digital information available on any given subject, and thus to make decisions about the science itself that might be better left in expert hands.

Similarly, we are in the midst of an intense conflict over “free speech”, a concept that once embodied the backbone of political resistance; a term now regarded as a four-letter-word in certain activist circles because of its more recent applications. It’s hard to find a leaping-off point that does not suggest fealty to either side of this debate, but The Atlantic‘s “Free Speech is No Diversion” (Nov. 12) perhaps best illuminates how persons of a liberal bent can hold diametrically opposed views in pursuit of a shared progressive goal. Most pieces on this issue champion a more extreme interpretation: that people who defend “free speech” in these contexts are sheltering those with the greatest social power from the consequences of their speech, within institutions that already tend to use corporate preference to set the parameters of acceptable social debate; or conversely, that people who use (non-corporate) economic pressure, social-media outcries, and even physical shows of force in response to systemic micro-aggressions are engaged in “thought-policing” on a level inching us ever closer to the brink of fascism or capital-C Communism.

I don’t mention the latter fears glibly, either. I have read the histories of China’s Cultural Revolution and early Soviet Russia–have wept over Zhou Enlai’s attempts to keep the youthful, revolutionary zeal of the Red Guard from entirely destroying the Chinese economy; have spent nights ruminating over the readiness with which the Russian people embodied the precepts of self-censorship, perpetuated class warfare between the proletariat and the peasants, and generally destroyed one another in fealty to the perceived moral righteousness of statist propaganda. I shudder to think of the same ever happening here, but I also consider part-and-parcel of that kind of extremism the perpetuation of any social narratives that themselves rely upon such a rhetoric of catastrophe, and in so doing imply a) that some immediate (usually quite fear-based, knee-jerk) action is required to turn the tide, and b) that there is ever One True Story standing head-and-shoulders above the rest.

In my time working at a bookstore, I have seen a profound range in the coping mechanisms and mythologies of my fellow human beings. Among the most affecting are the beliefs held by those who suffer from chronic pain, overwhelming grief, or otherwise powerful disappointments, and who adhere to crystal theory, astrology, reiki, books on guardian angels: anything to regain a sense of purpose and perceived control over their environments and bodies. The sneering man would say that such people need to be stripped of their ridiculous notions about the universe for the good of society–They are voting adults, after all! Meanwhile, the feeling, sneering man would say they need to be stripped of such notions for their own good; because their ignorance makes them vulnerable to exploitation by those who promise but cannot deliver genuine reprieve from their difficult circumstances.

I don’t entirely disagree, but there is a fiction at work here, too–a myth that the man who has walked in light (as he perceives it to be) can ever return to his friends in chains in Plato’s cave, and convince them that the figures on the wall before them are merely shadows. What Plato describes through Socrates is not some grand triumph of this contemptuous sort–the freed man shaking off with words alone the shackles he sees in other minds–but rather, a world in which individual unhappiness with this disparate knowledge-base is necessary for the good of the state; a world in which a man would be happier dwelling in the light ever after, but must nevertheless be forced to return to shadow, because “the truth”–as Plato declares it to be through Socrates–“is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.”

But let us go one terrible further: Let us imagine that, in this cave, there sit many men in shackles, all of whom believe that at one point they left this cave–saw light! saw the truth of their first shadows!–and now lie again in darkness, consigned for the good of the state to be surrounded by others who will never see as they see, and therefore never believe as they believe. In this scenario, it ceases to matter whether any among them actually left the cave; their visions of the outside world would likely stand in competition with one another’s even if they all had. What matters more is that each remains convinced of his singular removal from the cave, and thus privately considers his insight superior to that of all around him. Within this cave therefore sit as many benign dictators as there are prisoners, each varying only in levels of tenderness and contempt for the ignorance of his fellow human beings; each therefore firm, if also reluctant, in the necessity of shepherding the unwitting masses. Now we have a world of storytellers. Now we have our world.

With the little animal who curls up beside me, narration is easy. I convince her of a story’s truth by action alone: in coming home most every day; in keeping her water and food dishes full; by aligning certain sounds with specific actions and objects. With not-so-little animals, it’s easy to think that narration should be not-so-easy: that humans, as “advanced” animals, require alignment on a more overt narratological level to coexist, to support one another, and to pursue any common ends. And yet this is impossible to achieve in full. Even Plato’s Socrates can only gesture at how a man is supposed to lead in darkness, for:

When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good.

In this framing, it is enough to perceive for oneself a grander universe; that alone will somehow make the Platonic State a reality. And yet, the man who is returned to this cave cannot expect his fellow prisoners to understand his views, let alone believe in them. How can this grander universe therefore exist anywhere but in his mind’s eye? Subsequently, how can the cave contain anything greater than a body of prisoners, each convinced that utopia exists in his private thoughts alone?

I require no written document to treat the little animal in my care with kindness, but in the world of not-so-little animals, we often regard finding the right terminology and narratives as essential to good social practices. In consequence, using the wrong terminology, the wrong stories, can quickly undermine even our most well-intentioned actions. It is tempting to treat this as a modern phenomenon, but the tribalist impulse threads the long course of human history; we much prefer to have a clear understanding of who is and is not “on our side”. To rise above this impulse is not easy, and will probably never be permanent.

The best we can do, then, is simply to recognize the chasm between the stories we tell ourselves: how wide it runs, how deep. It is a generous instinct that leads us to try to reassure each other when fear of the unknown rises, but when we do, we have to remember that–whatever success we might find in the moment–what we’re ultimately reaching for is an impossible level of control over another’s inner world. Better, sometimes, simply to be present, to dwell together in that terrible cave and exude a level of calm we can only hope will convey all that really matters to the survival of our species. To answer, when someone asks of an unknown sound–did you hear that?–Yes, I did.

To accept that sometimes things just go bump in the night, and that it’s better (not happier, perhaps, but better) to accept not always knowing why–especially when the alternative is to reach for stories that only widen the chasm between us all.

Ten Books Read and Loved in 2015

Year-end lists arrive too late for the biggest spree in our consumerist culture, so although I support public libraries alongside local bookstores, I’m jotting down this year’s reading preferences now, with the buying season in mind.

I’m also going to cheat a bit, because choosing just ten books is too difficult, so in each category I will talk a little bit about surrounding options. And yes, I’m using categories instead of a straight “ten best” list, because it’s incredibly hard to compare so many books from so many contexts. This is not going to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully it offers a few intriguing reads.

1. From the World of Literary Giants

A Stangeness in my Mind, a novel by Orhan Pamuk

Many big-name authors added to their canon this year, and I read quite a few of these books with initial excitement that quickly waned. Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights holds delightful kernels of his earlier work, and pursues a fascinating theme (the fundamental nature of the universe: chaotic or ordered), but unravels both stylistically and argumentatively in the latter half. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant similarly wobbled, precisely because I found it too conscious of its genre to carry my interest in the story to the end, and I did not read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchmanwill not, because I so detested the way it was presented as a distinct novel instead of an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oddly enough, Orhan Pamuk‘s latest worked in the reverse: Despite not resonating with the book’s opening gambit (an attempt to establish reader sympathy by introducing a male protagonist tricked into marrying the “ugly” sister), I fell in love with the heart of the novel to follow: a story as much about the modern history of Istanbul–its politics, its peoples, its shifting, remembering landscapes–as about one street vendor who remains fairly stationary amid so much change, and manifests a deep, existential wonder at all he sees within and without his life. Although this book toys with traditional narrative voice and structure, I found something very old, almost akin to the work of Tolstoy, in the style of the prose, the function of the imagery, and the questions posed in A Strangeness in My Mind. Having already won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pamuk seems quite comfortable developing the power of his storytelling for its own (and his readers’) sake.

2. (Auto)Biography/Memoir

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I can’t recall a year in which I’ve read more (auto)biographies than this one. For some reason, I tend to find personal and critical revisionism of individual lives more tedious than enlightening. Nonetheless, I enjoyed with no small sadness Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life, reflected warmly on this blog about Meghan Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, took comfort in Ellen Forney’s “graphic memoir”, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me, and read with great fascination Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion–but Girl in a Band was a book I did not expect to read, let alone enjoy. I never really clicked with the music of Sonic Youth, but when I kept coming across book reviews frustrated by Kim Gordon‘s refusal to play to more traditional expectations for female autobiography, I was intrigued–and then rewarded for my stab in the dark with a surprisingly entertaining immersion into a sometimes-alien, but always well-commanded world of personal anecdote, industry insight, and artistic wherewithal. I might have to try listening to Sonic Youth again.

3. War & Peace

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When I start describing Terry Gould‘s book, which came out late 2014 in hardcover and is maddeningly postponed until 2016 for paperback, I’m often interrupted with one of two objections: “The title and cover make it look like a pretty war-mongering and nationalistic text, don’t you think?” and, “Police forces? Aren’t they the incompetents who made it impossible for soldiers to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan?” The book addresses both concerns almost at the outset, when Gould, a seasoned journalist-embed, first turns from covering soldiers to covering the RCMP who train local police forces around the world after massive disasters and during wars. Although Gould initially wants to put all manner of nationalistic acclaim on the role of the RCMP trainers, the RCMP trainers themselves won’t allow it. Time and again in this vivid account of various police-training missions, the text redirects attention to the bravery, sacrifice, and devastating mantles taken up by local peoples the world over–against corruption, while lacking proper resources, and despite the extreme likelihood of death in the line of duty. What emerges is no pat-on-the-back for Canadian aid on the world stage, but a profound insight through Canadian eyes, into the challenges most often overlooked in debates about building stable states. If Canadians want to reclaim a reputation as a “peace-keeping” nation, Worth Dying For is definitely the text to read.

4. Hard Sci-Fi

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There has been such a joyous range of scifi this year–from Neal Stephenson’s highly technical Seveneves, to the near-future resource crunch in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, to the anthropological scifi/space-opera of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti (from the first batch of Tor.com’s new novella line)–and yet this is a tough category for me to comment on, because the vast majority of my reading in 2015 has involved scifi in shorter fiction forms. Nevertheless, Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a favourite for his ability to humanize and revivify even the most well-worn genre tropes, so it’s no surprise that the stand-out novel-length work for me this year is his. Although I was sceptical about anyone’s ability to say anything new with a generation-ship story, Aurora comments on quite a few scifi discourses, all while maintaining a surprising level of focus on individual human relationships. On whole, this hefty volume offers a fine balance of pleasant plot surprises, important ideological questions, thoughtful world-building, and altogether evocative prose.

5. 2015 Award-Winner

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A Brief History of Seven Killings was my first book of the year, and although I agree with reviews that said it might have stood to be a third shorter, the quality of the prose itself was certainly not at fault. This is a difficult book to read, and not just because Marlon James switches between a variety of distinct voices and dialects to tell his story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life. Rather, the intensity and range of violence embodied and endured by almost all of the characters, both living and dead, is a heavy experience: an experience to take in beats and breaths. There are absolutely lighter award-winners this year; André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, for instance, is the correct choice for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize: pleasant and fun and easy to share with your whole family. However, there is an urgency and a vitality and a deeper, more complex humanity to the Man Booker Prize-winning piece. Eleven months after closing the covers, I’m still haunted by James’ story and his prose.

6. Children’s/YA Lit

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I don’t read much in this demographic sphere, but this year I’ve made a concerted effort to have works I can recommend to librarians and teachers who frequent the bookstore where I work part-time. To this end, I’ve held up Magonia as a YA fantasy that offers stylistic complexity while dealing with important adolescent themes, The Scorpion Rules as a wildly promising series-opener that offers literary reprieve for young adults frustrated by the inefficacy of today’s global powers, and Lizard Radio as a delight of a nuanced science-fantasy that, for the first two-thirds, does an excellent job challenging a cultural preference for clean binaries in gender, sexuality, and social roles. This is possibly the best book about gender fluidity that I’ve read from the youth market, and the only reason it isn’t my top choice is because it does buckle in the final third in the way of a lot of YA fiction, by descending into an action-packed set of all-too-convenient plot points to reach its conclusion. More consistently satisfying was The Wrath and the Dawn, which invokes a delicate balance between the horrors of the world and its wonders in a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. Renée Ahdieh could not have chosen a more empowering literary entry-point for a generation of teenagers confronted with real-world horrors like ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Syrian civil war, and this book gets serious points for its presentation of conflicting motivations in individual human beings.

7. Men’s Fiction

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The name of this category might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but only a bit. I read as many short-story collections as I could this year, and one strong theme seemed to be works about men in crisis, on the verge of internal or external collapse. Some of these collections were much richer than others: Daddy Lenin and Other Stories offers a fairly uniform vision of masculinity–but in enough contextual variations to make the volume enjoyable throughout–and In Another Country presents a splendidly dream-like set of stories that verge upon (without ever fully descending into) fantasy or magical realism. Weaker works included England and Other Stories, which offers a possibly-too-slow thematic build through small moments in modest lives, and Confidence, which was praised for the awfulness of its protagonists, but read to me more as an unintentional caricature of the use of alcohol and enigmatic women as props for self-destruction. Within this landscape of uneven executions, I found a stylistic haven in Debris. Its taut, lean, yet still vivid prose makes the familiar strange in a way that invites readers to revisit expectations about every character in each story–their motivations, their breaking points, their relationships. Kevin Hardcastle has a patient, distanced approach to his writing that quickly becomes immersive, and is best enjoyed with a beer or dram of whisky.

8. Classic Reprint

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Now he felt he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables. Resting his cheek against the cold window, he thought of killing himself, but years ago, standing beside his father’s legs in a crowd on a night sidewalk, he had seen a dead man profiled in a puddle of blood, his eye dumfounded, and Wes knew that if he was going to be killed he was not going to do it himself.

Last year, when I finished John Williams’ Stoner (another NYRB text, and one that grew wildly popular in 2013), my first instinct was to pick it up again and start over. I didn’t think I’d feel that way about another work so soon, but Leonard Gardner‘s book about boxers–Leonard Gardner’s only book, first published in 1969–has a control and majesty in its treatment of small moments (fragile city-life, down-and-out, lost-human-being moments) that makes its place in the hearts of so many writers a foregone conclusion. I will reread Fat City. I will try not to spend the rest of my life chasing its perfect prose.

9. Graphic Novel / Comic Book

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There have been a lot of smart comics this year, ranging from the levity and superhero wisdom of Ms. Marvel Vol 2: Generation Why, to the warmth and quirkiness of Lumberjanes, to the meditative, far-flung scifi of Descender, Vol. I: Tin Stars, to the poignant graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future. Nevertheless, the fifth volume in Saga is a delight because it maintains the series’ strong run of excellent world-building, which is no small feat after readers have already spent so much time within its space-operatic world. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples again construct a collection of vivid, exciting episodes that advance a powerfully resonant set of sociopolitical themes while also being firmly, devotedly about the relationships between mother, father, and child. Eventually there will come a lacklustre addition to the series, but not this year! Not yet!

10. Comfort Read

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How the hell can a book about mass extinction be a comfort read, you ask? You’d be better off asking Elizabeth Kolbert how she managed to write a piece that introduces so much information about the ongoing extinction of species, both as it’s being observed today and in contrast to various theories and histories of extinction, with so much kindness and even humour. The Sixth Extinction puts aside the harsh, accusatory language of so many treatises on global warming, and instead offers the historical and cultural context needed to face our likeliest legacy as a united front: as just one more fragile link in the natural chain; as a species that even now remains filled with wonder and questions about the world we share, and the environmental web we’re watching die off or transform.

In the same vein, other reassuring reads (for me) included two released last fall that I’ve only been able to get to recently: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book that treats end-of-life and quality-of-life care with so much common-sense compassion that I’m left feeling hopeful about improvements in our medical practice; and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which looks at gross miscarriages of justice in the American legal system and illustrates the kind of work that can be and is being done to reclaim lives and achieve reforms.

Okay, so maybe I do have an odd definition of “comfort reading”, and your mileage may vary, but this is my list! So it goes.

What did you read and enjoy most in 2015?

A Scattered Addition to a Classic Film Franchise

I’ve been remiss in posting film reviews as of late, but not remiss in watching modern films. After viewing Sicario and The Martian almost back-to-back, I found it difficult to write a piece that would do adequate justice to the whiplash of so much splendidly orchestrated existential nihilism followed by so much pleasantly orchestrated existential humanism. I have fewer qualms writing on Spectre, the latest effort in the Bond franchise, if only because it was a much more uneven effort–and in its unevenness, kept provoking the writer in me.

Before I begin, I should mention that I was amply primed for this film by the work of two doctoral colleagues and their brother, who collectively re-watched all the 007 films this summer, and reviewed each piece on 3BrothersFilm. I am partial to Anders’ reviews because of the range of analytical contexts he brings to his analyses, but each brother has his own strengths; Anton’s reviews appeal to my interest in the success of various narrative strategies, and Aren has a celebratory eye for visual storytelling that treats action sequences with the joy and nuance they deserve. Collectively, they offered a primer on Bond that helped me identify an extensive number of franchise-specific motifs in Sam Mendes’ latest venture.

That Bond is a franchise certainly offers one context through which to evaluate the film, but while watching Spectre, I also kept thinking about Bond’s competition. Not only has this been a boom year for spy films, but the covert-ops/government-surveillance themes that suffuse this film’s plot have also cropped up in a range of other mainstream movies. Thus, when we discover in Spectre that the future of the “Double-O” program lies in question, terrorist attacks have been used to manipulate the world government, and the British government has likely been infiltrated by criminal elements, how could I not compare Spectre to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, where the Impossible Missions Force is disbanded, terrorist attacks are used to manipulate the world government, and the British government has been compromised? Similarly, when a major Spectre plot-line involves the establishment of a global surveillance system for the greater protection of all citizens (but with an ulterior motive, obviously), how can an engaged movie-goer not contrast this film with last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, which also involved the establishment of a questionable global defense system?

This wealth of recent filmic comparisons strains the viewing of a movie that attempts to make many analogies and arguments in its 148-minute run-time. At Spectre’s heart beats one especially strong theme: the value of individuals making life-or-death decisions in matters of national security on a face-to-face level. Here Spectre is at its most fascinating, inasmuch as early spy films had to grapple with the audacity of lone agents operating at a significant remove from traditional forms of societal oversight; now, in the age of drone warfare, director Sam Mendes seems to imply that the assassin class shares the “dignity” of pre-WWI combatants, inasmuch as the myth goes that, in the good ol’ days, a man could still murder another man with some measure of decency and choice, all while looking him straight in the eye. The historical uncanniness (and revisionism) of this lament–that technology is taking all the gentlemanliness out of international espionage–is where this Bond film’s thematic landscape thrives.

Less successful in Spectre are the surrounding analogies and arguments, including one component of this whole crisis over a global surveillance system. I won’t spoil the film for readers, but I will say that Mendes deflates a great deal of his strongest theme by diminishing a lifetime’s effort at world domination to a truly bizarre and petty kernel of villainous backstory. Other possibly intriguing threads are similarly smothered in the execution, including a red herring involving Bond’s past, the underwhelming reveal of our principal villain, the halfhearted reveal of another villain from the actor’s well-known past role, and the haphazard way in which work-or-woman is presented as Bond’s ultimate inner crisis. I certainly had the impression that Mendes was trying to tie a whole body of 007 discourse into one film asking questions about the continuing relevance of Bond himself in our day and age, but the rise and fall of so many scattered ideas had the effect of dulling my experience entirely. Nor was I alone in feeling worn out by the experience; one person in my cinema actively moaned and cried out “too long!” to a couple approving sounds elsewhere in the room.

This isn’t to say, of course, that there weren’t clear highlights to Spectre. The opening scene, for instance, was easily the most artfully choreographed in the film, from its lush Day-of-the-Dead costuming and set design, to the immense nuance of its visual storytelling, to a gripping aerial tracking shot of Bond casually strolling along precarious rooftops, to some clever jump cuts and narrative reversals that promised a film filled with unexpected twists and turns. From that opening, though, we cut to a bizarre credits sequence that deflates a lot of the urgency and gravitas of the previous scene. Yes, “Spectre” is a criminal organization with an octopus as its insignia, but there’s almost no way to engulf sensuous female forms in tentacles without invoking–well, you know. The Bond franchise is known for some especially hokey opening numbers, but this marriage between the lyrics of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” and visual interpretation felt both too overt and, at the same time, scattered: teetering at many junctures between attempts at genuine comedy and caricature. The film that follows continues to produce scenes that, in their homage to earlier Bond films, seem to make too many sacrifices to a more goofball, haphazard period in Bond franchise history.

Does Bond still work as a vehicle for the serious questions it poses? I’m still wrestling for an answer. Because of how the global surveillance arc plays out, I’m tempted to suggest that the Marvel and M:I franchises might be better positioned to adapt to the cultural concerns of the modern mainstream landscape–but maybe I’m also putting too much stock into one Bond film that felt a little tired, a little safe, a little dull.

Speaking of dull, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in the presence of pretty Bond girls. It certainly didn’t help that Bond seems to be making love to the mirror more than to the stunning Monica Bellucci, despite the claim he makes that the husband of the woman she plays in Spectre must have been a fool not to pay more attention to her. (Another attempt at off-kilter humour, by making our classic ladies’ man a bit of a rogue? I couldn’t tell.) But even the later romancing of lead-lady Madelein Swann, in which her initial contempt of Bond is succeeded by a desperate, overwhelming love in a matter of days, felt mechanical right through to what was supposed to feel like a triumph of an amorous encounter.

Granted, the treatment of women in this film was mostly typical of Bond films, with Moneypenny far and away proving the most modern of the film’s representations–but at the same time, it wasn’t at all typical, because Mendes actually managed to *reduce* Judi Dench’s M (from Skyfall) to little more than one more woman Bond has “lost”, and whose narrative arc is entirely in service of his ongoing psychological torture. A fantastically old-school Bond brawl on a train also seemed to be making the argument against Bond, the character, ever being played by a woman–which, okay, is fine by me, except that this restriction to the franchise only exacerbates the existing limits to female archetypes in Bond films. If no woman is ever going to grow into a Bond, can she at least grow to be something on par with the leading woman in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a secret agent whose death threats aren’t simply humoured tenderly by our leading man? And if she can’t–if the Bond franchise simply cannot sustain growth in this regard without losing its core aesthetics–then where will its growth emerge?

Watching Spectre, I was reminded that there are really two kinds of narrative franchises: the ones that trade on familiarity and reliability as ends unto themselves, and the stories that reliably establish the familiar solely to escape it. If I’m disappointed in Spectre, it’s really because I still can’t decide which Sam Mendes was trying for. A lot of the narrative and directorial promises in the opening scene seemed to involve doing the unexpected with familiar constructs, but the film that follows all too often settles into a lot of old–maybe too old–Bond tropes. I can only hope the next one is better at picking a side.

Writing Reflections: Story Up, Stories Out, Stories On Their Way

I don’t often re-read my stories once they’ve been published, but my most recent publication, “The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” (GigaNotoSaurus), has been an exception. Just as children re-enact scenarios over and over while trying to process their implications, something kept nagging at me the more I thought about this story, about a jaded AI who investigates the murder of 23 monks in a community that believes the universe’s existence is maintained by sacred song. I would re-read the piece, then think about my forthcoming novelette in Analog (“Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan”), then think about a novella presently in queue at Tor.com, then stare at the notes for my work-in-progress, a novel(la) currently titled “To Make a Circle in the Sky.” Then I’d start the cycle anew.

Yesterday, the puzzle’s solution clicked. These four stories, all arising in the space of a year, share what I can only classify as a “purpose-driven anger”–my anger, my frustration with certain cultural narratives and contemporary histories, and my dissatisfaction with the ways currently on offer to escape them. “The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” addresses the failure of dramatic class-based revolution in an isolated culture, and offers only the slenderest hope of change in the form of future cultural diversification; “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” looks at what a person owes the culture of their origin, and to what extent individuals can ever be read outside their cultural context; “A Banquet in Anxiety” offers a near-future first-contact scenario as viewed by persons (mostly) marginalized at the negotiation table, and in the Terran/Martian economy at large. The novel-in-progress similarly champions those with the least say in our current world, and asks two questions: “How does a monolithic culture form from the fragments of past tribes?” and “What would happen if the people we neglect the most, the refugees of disaster and war and violent persecution, were our first ambassadors to the stars?”

Earlier this week, after listening to C. L. Moore read from her classic space fantasy, Shambleau (1933), I’d engaged in the fun internet game of wandering through hidden references and motifs in the works of classic SF&F authors. For instance, Heinlein famously lifts the title of one short story, “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), from a song Moore’s protagonist hums in “Shambleau” and one other story. The song and Heinlein’s poet, Rhysling, also appear in other works by Heinlein: Farmer in the Sky (1950), Time Enough for Love (1973), and “Universe” (1941, but better known as half of Orphans of the Sky [1963]). I’m routinely fascinated by how these little Easter eggs find their way into an author’s work; how, over time, an author’s inner world naturally finds links–patterns, plot devices, character archetypes, or whole memory palaces–between seemingly disparate narrative contexts. I suppose in some way that’s the dream, though: to hit upon a “physics engine” that can sustain a whole universe of stories. And I suppose what I’m trying to say, then, is that I might just have figured out the overarching coherence in my own.

Honestly, this suspicion comes as a bit of a surprise for me. In my growth as a writer, I have often felt that “arriving” would mean “finding my voice”–but until this week, I tended to think of that voice solely on stylistic grounds. However, such a definition has been profoundly frustrating for me, because I strongly believe that form must follow function, and as such, I try damned hard, whether writing scifi or mystery or mainstream fiction, to adapt my vocabulary, syntax, pacing, and narrative voice to the needs of the specific story. How, then, can an overarching “voice” appear?

As I also just realized this past week, all the stories in my general fiction manuscript (to be submitted the moment I publish even a single story therein) have binding threads as well. The most surprising of these–discovered when reflecting on how much literature plays a role in my submitted novella–was the realization that, without overtly planning it this way, I had slipped a major literary reference into every single piece. These stories are organized over the chronology of life, from an opening piece about a small child to a closing piece about the legacy of a recently-deceased man, and most are quite plainly about persons in positions of extreme vulnerability, whether those positions were created by themselves or by circumstances beyond their control.

The literary references are usually quite subtle, little more than a background wash that needn’t be recognized in order to “get” any part of the story itself. However, the balance between the two–the expansive idealism of literature and the tendency of real life towards smaller, more private notions of survival and success–speaks to another frustration on my part: what different people do with the impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being or being known by them. Some people use this fundamental isolation as an excuse to distance themselves from the world, while others take that isolation as a challenge, and seek out as much meaning and connection as they can. But how can these competing approaches coexist? And what happens when a person who desires meaning is guided by a person who does not?

Obviously, there are differences between the themes I explore in science fiction and general fiction–which is, quite simply, the reason I do write in both forms instead of one. Nonetheless, this week I have had the tremendous privilege of being able to recognize all the resonance points within my most recent work, and from those resonance points come to the surprising conclusion that, without even realizing it, a strong sense of purpose has arisen in my writing. I have been trying for a very long time to find the right stories through which to channel my frustrations, my sorrows, and my hopes for the narrative underpinnings of our shared universe–and for the first time since I gave myself permission to be mediocre in my writing (so long as not-being-perfect also gave me permission to persevere), I think I might just have found them.

Only time and a lot more hard work, though, will tell.

To that end: best wishes and happy, meaningful writing to you all.